HIGH LINE STORIES – In the beginning…

Robert Hammond and Joshua David, co-founders, Friends of the High Line

We recently caught up with the very busy co-founders of Friends of the High Line, Robert Hammond and Joshua David whose vision is captured in the Sundance Channel Original Series HIGH LINE STORIES. Robert and Josh, who were recently featured in a New York Times article told us the story of how two guys who had never previously met joined forces to save and re-purpose the defunct elevated train line in Chelsea, their neighborhood in midtown Manhattan.

Sundancechannel.com: What was your awareness of the High Line before reading that it was going to be demolished?

Robert Hammond: I lived in the neighborhood…and, like most people here, had just the passing glimpses of it. I’m sure I was occasionally curious, but I didn’t think much of it.

Joshua David: I lived in Chelsea nearly 15 years before I paid the High Line any attention at all. And part of that is the way the High Line goes through Chelsea – it mostly hides behind buildings and then it pops out and juts over the street and then hides behind buildings again. I didn’t understand that it was connected to other pieces of the structure that I could see in other places – like up at the rail yards or down at the meatpacking district. So I just never paid it any attention.

The High Line viaduct in 1953 photographed by James Shaughnessy.

Sundancechannel.com: What kind of work did you do before founding Friends of the High Line?

Robert Hammond: I was an artist and involved in several entrepreneurial start-up companies.

Joshua David: I was a freelance magazine writer at the time and I was writing an article about changes that were happening in West Chelsea – the galleries were really beginning to take strong root – the Comme des Garçons store had just opened – and so I was assigned a magazine article on the neighborhood. And it was as I was researching that article and walking all of the blocks of West Chelsea that I realized it was not a remnant of something – it was still unbroken all the way from Gansevoort Street up to 34th Street. And I think that was what really captured my imagination – the idea that there was this unbroken structure 30 feet in the air in the middle of these city blocks going all the way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.

Sundancechannel.com: How soon after that did you hear that it was going to be torn down?

Joshua David: Well, shortly after that there was an article in the New York Times about the High Line and the fact that demolition proceedings were underway and I read that article and Robert also read the same article and we both did something similar – we both called a lot of the people who were quoted in it to try and learn more. And we both tried to learn if someone was working to preserve it. And that’s how we – in those conversations with people – that’s how we ended up both speaking to somebody who invited us to a community board meeting… separately, we didn’t know each other at the time. So we both ended up at this community board meeting where the High Line was being discussed and happened to sit next to each other and that’s how we met.

Sundancechannel.com: How soon after that did you form Friends of the High Line?

Joshua David: Very informally, probably a couple of weeks later – but that was just the two of us in an office somewhere saying, “We’re going to do this.”

Robert Hammond: It just really seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only preserve something – but actually re-purpose it into something great for New York City.

Joshua David: And then the first few months we were really sort of fumbling around to find our way – partly because there was very little information available about the High Line at that time. Now you can go to our website and there’s all this information and there are all these newspaper and magazine articles all online – but in 1999, there was just no information that was readily available about it. And it was also the subject of legal cases for over 20 years, which were very complicated, so it took us a few months to figure out what exactly we were going to do. And we ended up convening a small group of people who, ultimately, became the base of our board – and met with the railroad that owned the structure – CSX…

Sundancechannel.com: So the City of New York didn’t already own the High Line at that time?

Joshua David: At the time, it was property of CSX – it was originally built by the New York Central Railroad – and it passed through several owners… CONRAIL and eventually CSX and they actually had offices in the World Trade Center. So we went for a meeting with them – Robert and I and the man who became the chair of our board of directors, Phil Aarons. [CSX] laid out their case and what they were interested in trying to do – which was, basically, they had decided they didn’t want the High Line anymore and they didn’t care whether it was torn down or whether it went into the hands of an organization like ours or the City to become a park – it was a non-performing asset for them and they wanted to not have it anymore. After that, we went for a drink at Windows on the World on top of the World Trade Center – Phil and Robert and I – and we went to the bar together and that’s when we named the organization “Friends of the High Line.”

Check SUNFILTERED again next week for Part 2 of our interview with Friends of the High Line co-founders, Robert Hammond and Joshua David.

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